3 Times Your Brain Is Dumber Than You Are
Imagine that a predatory black bear has found you alone in the forest. You can hear its low, deep breathing, its sharp claws scraping the earth, its massive feet crunching twigs and pine needles. Suddenly, it bursts out from the brush behind you, roaring and charging straight for you. As it reaches you, it lunges forward, its massive paw swinging straight for your head, claws glinting in the mountain sunlight.
Pause there. Now imagine that you're at your office. The new girl, Becky Jo, was upset yesterday because she had done something that made her feel like a terrible mom. To help her feel better, you told her a story of when you were a young and exhausted parent and forgot your baby in the back of the car one day while you ran into an Ace Hardware for something. You were gone maybe five minutes and the baby slept the whole time, but still, you felt awful. Then, Becky Jo decided to tell the whole office how irresponsible you were, and now she's got the office gossip and everyone thinks you're just the worst person ever.
You - actual, current, reading this blog you - can completely tell the difference between these two interactions. In one, you're seconds away from death and you have one chance to save your life. In the other, you found out the new girl in the office kinda sucks. Different as night and day, these two scenarios.
Your Brain Sucks at Telling the Difference Between Kinds of Threats
When you're brain senses you're in danger, under attack, being threatened, it cycles through three basic responses, commonly known as fight, flight, or freeze. Here's the thing, though. Your brain sucks at telling the difference between kinds of threats. As far as your brain is concerned, Becky Jo is the same as a bear, and a bear is the same as Becky Jo. A threat is a threat, and a threat requires one of the fight, flight, or freeze responses. Simply put, your either going to have to give a beating, run from a beating, or take a beating - and your brain has to get you ready. It doesn't care whether the beating is physical or emotional. It doesn't care whether you're going to get hit with fists or with words. It doesn't care whether you're going to have to play dead (which you should never do with a predatory black bear, by the way. That's how you get eaten. The more you know...) or whether you're going to have to retreat inside your heart and try to not feel your abuser's hate-filled comments. It's all the same to your brain.
So what happens inside you when your brain perceives a threat? Three hormones are released: adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol. Each chemical has a slightly different effect on the body. Adrenaline, for example, increases the amount of blood sugar produced by your body and increases the heart rate, allowing your blood to move more quickly through your body and get more oxygen to your lungs, improving your physical performance. Norepinephrine also contributes to these functions, while also increasing breathing rate and shutting down metabolic process like digestion, which allow more of your blood to go to your lungs and brain. It also causes your pupils to dilate, which lets in more light and allows you to see more clearly. Cortisol has a number of similar functions, as well as increasing muscle tension to produce physical strength. Basically, your body is primed and ready for whatever happens next when these three things are coursing through you.
Your brain sucks at using some of its most important parts in threatening situations
Unfortunately, while your body is getting ready to fight, fly, or freeze - parts of your brain are changing functions, too. Specifically, the frontal lobe - the part of your brain responsible for problem solving, reasoning, impulse control, abstract thought - turns off. Technically, it starts to die. But, don't worry! The process of death is very, very slow. Cortisol in particular has a toxic effect on frontal lobe brain cells, but its impact is practically immeasurable in the relatively short doses that most of us find in our brains during threatening situations. Either way, while the frontal lobe is off, you are physically incapable of making slow, rational, critically thought-out decisions. You have to make fast, instinctual decisions. Now, while you're running from or fighting a predatory bear, this is a really useful effect that just might save your life. But when you're trying to figure out the best way to navigate a workplace conflict, or how to get along with your child or your spouse when they've upset you... well, those skills would be pretty useful, to say the least.
In interpersonal conflict, which your brain often mistakes for a threat that necessitates the fight, flight, or freeze response, the emotion that's most commonly produced as a side effect of these hormones is anger. Anger is unique among all of the emotions because of its capacity to render our critical minds completely useless. People often do foolish, rash, and irresponsible things when they're angry. We often think of the anger as pushing them into those behaviors, but, more accurately, its the incapacity of the frontal lobe that makes those behaviors possible. Our ability to make sound judgments evaporates. Our body is primed for aggression. We're overloaded with energy - and it has to go somewhere. So we lash out. With our fists. With our words. With our actions. Our brain works against us when we're angry, and often creates real threats to our relationships that may or may not have been there before.
Your brain sucks at any attempt to stop being irresponsible & Angry
So, your brain has misidentified a threat, and caused the production of all these hormones that, in turn, cause the fight, flight, or freeze response. The fight, flight, or freeze response, in order to work, has to shut down the part of your brain that would be really useful right now, because your brain thinks it's in imminent danger and has to make quicker decisions than the frontal lobe would allow for, what with all its empathy and critical thinking and alternative perspectives and caring about other people's points of view. Now you can't make sound judgments, so you say or do something dumb and hurtful that makes the conflict a little worse. What do you do? Do you apologize? Make amends? Work it out rationally? Probably not - you probably double down. Even if, by some miraculous grace of God, you've realized there's a better way to handle this, you're still angry and you just can't stop.
Again, this is your brain's fault. It's not the worst at identifying when a genuine threat has passed. You either got away from the bear, or you killed the bear, or somehow you got it to go away. After a bit, your brain will slow and eventually stop its production of the three stress hormones and you'll be able to return to rational thought again. But what does your brain do about Becky Jo? You can't kill her. You're not gonna quit your job. You're not going to make her quit her job. You're just going to be coming back to work every day until you retire with coworkers who now judge you and a woman who shared an intimate story that you meant for her edification with all those Judgy Judgersons. Work is gonna be frustrating for a while. Or imagine that you're married to a Becky Jo. Then you even have to see them on weekends. You have to sleep next to them. Every day of your waking life you're dealing with someone that makes you angry. Your constantly stressed. Constantly on overload. Constantly unable to see any perspective other than your own, and constantly unable to make decisions characterized by critical thinking and good judgment.
In the best of marriages, we often experience what I like to call thematic arguments. Even if we're not constantly fighting, there's still that one thing that comes up every so often, over and over again for years. For me and Carly, it's a planning ahead argument. She does, I don't. And we have argued about that for ten years. They're not knock down, drag out battles like they were early on, but every once in a while, there's just a little tiff. It's a theme of our life together. One of many, but still a theme - our thematic argument. Our brain can make it very difficult to achieve true resolution of a thematic argument, to stop being angry whenever it rears its head again.
But there is hope. Sadly, this blog would be even longer than it already is if we took time to discuss it now. But fear not. You can come back on Friday morning for part two of this post, where we'll be talking about how to circumvent the unfortunate fact that your brain is dumber than you are, and how to trick it into letting you resolve conflicts in a healthy, responsible way.